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An Army at Peril | The Nation

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An Army at Peril

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The "surge" is George Bush's last cast of the dice. He is throwing his final reinforcements into the battle for Iraq. If this effort fails, he has nothing left to rush into the fight unless he strips every Army post here and abroad, leaving the nation with no reserves for any kind of contingency.

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Nicholas von Hoffman
Nicholas von Hoffman, a veteran newspaper, radio and TV reporter and columnist, is the author, most recently, of...

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As he takes this gamble, worries grow about the underlying condition of the Army: its equipment shortages, its exhausted regulars, its increasingly overused and unready National Guard. Concerns intensify about the well-being of the expeditionary force after years of chasing up and down Iraq, avoiding ambushes and taking casualties with little to show but perplexity.

"Of the Army's 650,000 soldiers who have been to Iraq so far, about 170,000 have served more than one tour, according to the Army," the Christian Science Monitor reports. "The incidence of post-battle stress goes up by over 50 percent for the second tour, Army surveys show. Moreover, battlefield dangers are ubiquitous: 76 percent of soldiers know someone who has been killed or seriously injured, and 55 percent have experienced a nearby explosion of an improvised bomb.

Outgoing Army Chief of Staff Peter Schoomaker told Congress on December 15 that the existing deployment policy is "untenable in the long term unless the Army can add a massive number of soldiers or get access to more reservists to relieve active-duty troops."

Even in the not so long term the signs are troubling. Although most reports have it that the morale of the American expeditionary force in Iraq remains high, many soldiers show signs of turning skeptical about what it is doing, doubtful about their Commander in Chief and dubious about the likelihood of coming out of Iraq ahead of the other side.

Military Times, the unofficial but authoritative journal covering the defense establishment, has published its year-end poll of what the boots on the ground think of their mission. All those answering the poll's questions are on active duty; two-thirds of them have served in Iraq or Afghanistan. These are the men and women in whom the success of American intentions reside.

In answer to the question "Should the U.S. have gone to war in Iraq?" only 41 percent said yes as contrasted to a year ago, when 56 percent said yes. A startling 37 percent said no, with 11 percent deciding not to answer, which sounds like a "no, but I don't want to be recorded as saying so."

On that question the Military Times says, "As in the previous two years, Military Times Poll respondents were reluctant to express opinions, even anonymously, about the commander-in-chief or his policies. About one in five refused to say whether they approved of the president's performance on Iraq or overall.

"'That's my boss,'" Army Lieut. Col. Earnestine Beatty said in a follow-up interview. "'I can't comment.'" Richard Kohn, a University of North Carolina military scholar told the Times that "he worried that asking such questions of military members and publishing the results could tarnish the military's image as a nonpartisan institution."

In answer to the question "Regardless of whether you think the U.S. should have gone to war, how likely is the U.S. to succeed?" 41 percent of those doing the fighting said that they did not believe that they and their country would prevail. Those answering the questions who come from all the fighting services also have doubts about the capacity of the man making the big decisions.

In contrast to a year ago, when 54 percent approved, only 35 percent answered "approve" when asked, "Do you approve or disapprove of the way George W. Bush is handling the situation with Iraq?"--42 percent disapproved of how their Commander in Chief is doing his job. (A jump up from 25 percent in 2005.) Another 12 percent declined to answer the question, which we can take to mean they do not approve either but they think it is wrong to go on record saying so. Nevertheless, more than half of the armed forces in this survey cannot bring themselves to say they have confidence in their supreme commander.

How closely do these results mirror the opinions and feelings of all active-duty personnel? The Military Times cautions that "the results should not be read as representative of the military as a whole; the survey's respondents are on average older, more experienced, more likely to be officers and more career-oriented than the overall military population." They are also preponderantly Republican and of a conservative cast of mind. A mere 7 percent described themselves as liberal, and a corporal's guard of 16 percent said that they were Democrats.

When it comes to backing Bush's military policies, these people are the President's bedrock support, the hardest of the hard core. They are not like civilians who get discouraged at bad news. They are not summer soldiers. The military knows how to hang in there, and its respect for its Commander in Chief is anything but superficial, which makes these polling numbers and their respondents' pessimism all the more startling.

At what point these opinions become corrosive is anyone's guess. Our service people have shown themselves to be steadfast, energetic and undaunted, but there comes a time when their own consciousness of the futility of what they have been asked to do does affect performance. How long can soldiers be asked to fight a war they believe is unwinnable?

When morale begins to crumple efficiency goes down, effectiveness decreases, casualties rise and we can no longer debate about stately timed withdrawals. Armies do disintegrate, they do fray, and if ours starts to go that way, we may, even with our stupendous firepower, have to get our people out quick. It is well and good to argue about what we can or should do with or to Iraq, but let's also remember what Iraq is doing to us.

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